31

If I'm going to face down a dragon, Mob boss, evil corporation, or a demon from the 7 circles of hell or dystopian dictator, etc, it's not going to be to rescue my buddy Herbert, or cousin Jimmy. The best they are going to get are my harsh words and heavy disapproval muttered under my breath as I go into hiding. But if I had actually found real love and that was snatched from me I would move heaven and earth attempting to save her. So that is where my characters' motives come from.

However, I see the complaints so often now, buzz phrases being stuff like "manic pixie dreamgirl," "hero's reward," "nerd wish fulfillment," "women in the fridge," etc, etc.... Why is writing a love interest for the hero so widely ridiculed?

My issue is I enjoy those stories, they seem more realistic to me from the point of the hero. How can I write a story with a love interest without running into this kind of criticism?

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    Welcome Ric, glad you found us and we hope you stick around. I'm a bit confused on what you're asking here. The romance genre, and the element of romance within other genres, is alive and well. If you're getting pushback, it's not a sign that there isn't an audience for your work out there. There are also plenty of works where the hero does save a friend or family member (Frozen is one of several examples) and that's okay too. When you get a chance, take a peek at our tour and help center. Even if your question is closed, we'd love for you to read, answer questions, and ask more as well. – Cyn Sep 9 at 14:42
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    Read about Sexy Lamp test. If your love interest character can be changed into a sexy magical lamp and story doesn't change, you're in trouble, because she is a flat character without hopes and dreams and initiative. More here: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LivingMacGuffin – jo1storm Sep 10 at 9:34
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    If your Protagonist only faces the threat for their "true love", but would run and hide were it their friend, or a family member in danger (let alone a complete stranger!)... Well, I'm not sure you have any business calling them a Hero. – Chronocidal Sep 10 at 9:46
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    @RicFuentez because their motivations seem selfish, rather than truly altruistic. It feels ignoble to judge who and who isn't worthwhile saving. – Pureferret Sep 11 at 10:40
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    @RicFuentez it might be realistic, but that didn't mean it's heroic. – Pureferret Sep 12 at 6:56
44

The kinds of criticisms you are encountering are not aimed against the concept of the hero having a love interest. They are aimed against female characters that that exist only as a motivation for the hero, and that are, as a consequence, generic, cliched, stereotyped, unrealistic, and unsatisfying as characters, particularly for female readers. At one time it was incredibly common for female love interests to be as absolutely interchangeable as the MacGuffin in a mystery story --see practically any older mainstream movie or genre fiction book for proof. And yes, many people are still writing those books and movies. But they're starting to experience a lot of critical pushback --which is what you're witnessing.

If you want to write a love interest for your main character, that's great. But the modern critical audience is unlikely to embrace a love interest that seems only like your own personal fantasy girl. They are going to want to see someone in that role who has her own hopes, dreams, storylines, history, flaws, strengths and so forth.

But let's say you're not writing a romance between characters of equal importance in the story --you want to focus on your male protagonist and his adventures, but you still want him to have a love interest. Is that kind of story just hopelessly out of date? Maybe, but I'd argue that you can still treat your female characters with respect. The fantasy classic Master of the 5 Magics (Lyndon Hardy) is a great example. In format and structure, it's your basic wish-fulfillment sword-and-sorcery action thriller, about a despised young man who goes on a quest, gains magical powers, saves a kingdom, and ends up with a beautiful girl at the end. So cliched, right? But there's a twist. Throughout the story, the hero is working towards earning the love of the beautiful-but-disdainful queen. But at the end, he realizes he's actually in love with her advisor, a tough, intelligent woman who has been doing as much (offstage) work to save the kingdom as he has. Although she doesn't have an equal role as a character in the story, their relationship is definitely presented as a marriage of equals. She isn't just a damsel in distress waiting to be saved.

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    I don't think we should take it as read that this vein of cultural criticism, or any other, reflects actual audience preferences. As much as the manic pixie dream girl may stick in some people's craw, writers keep writing her, readers keep reading her, and viewers keep watching her. The fundamental things that appeal to us in story seem to remain fairly constant despite whatever particular form of cultural criticism is ascendant at the moment. The MPDG may be a fantasy, but then so is the cat suited ninja girl, and so is the love object of every romance novel. – user16226 Sep 9 at 15:03
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    @MarkBaker In my recent experiences querying agents and publishers, I have found that there is at least a stated preference on the publishing side of the market for more three-dimensional female and minority characters. // That's not to say that stories that don't meet that bar don't continue to be published. But the OP wasn't asking about the market anyway, he was specifically asking about this vein of criticism. // I'd also note that I, at least, as a reader, and therefore a member of the audience, do in fact prefer stories with less generic female characters. – Chris Sunami Sep 9 at 15:09
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    Yes, I'm seeing that on agent web pages as well. But in publishing there is always the aspirational -- the things that people in the biz want to have sell -- and the practical -- the things that actually sell. I interpret the agent wish list to be those things that they would really like to see executed within a novel that will actually sell. I don't take it to mean that they will turn their noses up at salable novels that don't check every item on their wish list. They can be as idealistic as they like in their aspirations, but they still have to eat. Look to what sells to see what sells. – user16226 Sep 9 at 17:06
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    @MarkBaker It's still worth the effort to do it right. I love Zelazny's old Amber books, but the female characters in them are wretched to the point that it can make the books difficult to swallow. Conversely, it's a rare pleasure to go back to a beloved older book and find female or minority characters who are more than just tokens. There's so many books I liked as a kid that I can't, in good conscience, share with my own children, because I don't want them growing up with those negative images. – Chris Sunami Sep 10 at 16:00
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    I don't know about rare pleasure. The beloved older books that I go back to don't seem to indulge in tokenism much (thought whether their portrayals of various people would pass muster with the ideologues du jour is another matter). It may have to do with how much genre fiction you read. Genre fiction, by its nature, depends on stereotypes. That is what allows it to focus on fast paced plotting. Contemporary genre fiction relies on stereotypes just as much, and will seem just as outdated in 50 years. It simply uses stereotypes that suit the current fashion. – user16226 Sep 10 at 17:00
25

A love interest is not the only reason to risk life and limb. IRL there are many stories of people risking life and limb to save children, sometimes losing their life. In psychology there is a real phenomenon, primarily involving young adults in their teens or twenties, of taking insane risks to save a child they don't even know. Daniel Goleman documents some of this as "Amygdala Hijack", e.g. IRL a soldier in his early twenties visited (for entertainment) a tall bridge over a flooding river, while watching the river below with trees and debris rushing past at high speed, he saw a five year old in the water, and without realizing he was doing it vaulted the rail and dove about thirty feet into that churn, fully clothed, found the child and brought her safely to shore. After the fact he said he couldn't remember making any decision, one instant he saw the child, the next thing he remembers is hitting the water.

A young teen girl, waiting for a bus, ran into traffic moving at speed to snatch a three year old (that wandered off the opposite sidewalk) out of the way of a truck. She also couldn't remember making a decision, she saw the child and the next thing she remembered was holding the kid in the air in the middle of traffic.

There is nothing wrong with giving your hero a love interest, the issue is whether the love interest could just be replaced by something else, like a kid in danger.

The best love interests (and kids in danger) are actually critical to the hero's success, they aren't just there to be rescued, and the hero would not succeed without them. Otherwise, they truly are not important to the plot, they could be replaced by something else the hero would devote their life to, like art, or "the truth", or "democracy" or their Religion, all real-life things people have taken risks to preserve. The Founding Fathers literally risked their lives to realize the USA, not out of a particular love interest, but to escape subjugation. Many slaves risked and lost their lives for freedom, not just for a girl back home.

True Love is complementary and synergistic; the two lovers are emotionally better together than the sum of what they would be alone.

If you have a love interest, this is what you need to portray, that the love is not one-sided, and the hero will lose an important part of himself if he fails, his life will be diminished NOT just because he lost her, or she couldn't please him any more, but because of the ways in which she provided the strength where he was weak, the intelligence where he was dumb, the understanding when he was confused, the humor when he was dour. She has to be a real person with her own strengths and weaknesses, complementary to his weaknesses and strengths. They need to mate in more than a physical sense.

Then it won't be a cliché, he isn't losing just a pretty sperm receptacle he can replace with a phone call and a few hundred dollars.

  • 1
    Love interest can certainly be one sided. ... But that said, the main problem really is... a love interest should not just be an emotional support character, or a banter target, or a plot driver (love interest in distress)... – dolphin_of_france Sep 9 at 17:50
  • @dolphin_of_france I don't think romantic love can be one-sided, I think anybody that thinks they are in love with someone that truly doesn't love them is suffering from a delusion, or is in lust or in love with a fantasy version of a real person. Such lust and fantasy can, of course, lead to love, by virtue of driving two people to learn about each other either before or in addition to the bedroom and realize their synergy; but I don't believe it is love yet. Of course that is my definition of true love, you are entitled to your own. – Amadeus Sep 9 at 18:28
  • I didn't say romantic love can be one sided. I said, a love interest could be one sided. – dolphin_of_france Sep 9 at 18:50
  • @dolphin_of_france What is a "love interest"? A child? A sibling, or some other platonic love? To me a "love interest" implies romantic love, that is the only type of love commonly referred to as a "love interest", and that cannot be one-sided. – Amadeus Sep 9 at 19:04
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    @RicFuentez You wouldn't risk life and limb to save your own child? – Amadeus Sep 9 at 22:00
19

Here's an easy test: if for all intents and purposes the woman in your story could be replaced with a golden chalice, you're in trouble. Someone stole the guy's chalice, he wants to get it back. Someone crashed the guy's chalice, he wants revenge. Worst offenders are the "if you save the princess, you can marry her" stories - there the woman is literally a reward.

What makes a character different from a nice cup? The woman has agency.

In @Amadeus's example of the child in the river, the child has no agency, but that is a very brief situation. If your hero is going on presumably a novel-spanning quest to save his love-interest from a dragon, what is the love-interest doing all this time? Presumably more than sitting on a shelf in the dragon's fridge and doing nothing? It might be that the lady can't escape the dragon on her own. A war prisoner often can't escape either. But the war prisoner is doing something, right?

Another related trope you want to avoid is the woman's agency always landing her in trouble. If every time the woman exercises her will instead of doing what the man tells her, she then needs saving from the consequences of her actions, that's problematic. That's saying "men know better, women should obey" and "women are incapable of taking care of themselves or making good decisions".

A lady gets kidnapped by a dragon. Why? Because she went out to pick flowers all alone, when she was told not to go out of the palace? Or was it that she was championing a dragon-hunting coalition, getting the villages armed against dragons, actually pushing dragons back so they felt genuinely threatened? See the difference?

Neither does the hero need to do the saving all on his own. Surely his beloved can be useful in some way? Surely, he's not all-powerful, all-knowing, made-of-steel, one-man powerhouse who needs no assistance ever? Human heroes are more compelling.

And finally, don't forget about other female characters in your story. Every problematic trope discussed by me and by others is exacerbated if every female character in your story is flat and useless or worse than useless, or if there are no other female characters in the story at all.

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    Actually in the graphic novel I'm working on currently the hero protagonist is one of the only reoccurring male characters in the story, other male characters are either one off villains or obstacles. his Ishmael type companion on his quest is actually female whom I'm writing as a very butch lesbian(based on my real life friend of 10 years) and her girlfriend (based on my friends wife). And the love interest is going to be fully fleshed out from a gazillian angles do to the type of story it is. Cliff notes summery, hero loses the love of his life and travels the multiverse finding her alts. – Ric Fuentez Sep 9 at 21:31
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    @RicFuentez In that case, I don't think you'll have a problem. – Galastel Sep 9 at 21:34
  • yep the hero is what I classify as a "lazy prodigy" super smart to genius level but no ambition, career student, happy with his life, his small social circle, apartment over an arcade and most of all his girlfriend who he has been with since the 11th grade(he is 26) who it took him 4 years to win over. – Ric Fuentez Sep 9 at 21:48
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    What’s the issue with the woman being replaceable? Of course a human is not just any object, but in this case all the hero needs is a believable reason to go on his quest. Magic sword, long-lost relatives, girlfriend … who cares what the specific reason is? I find it incredibly annoying when authors feel forced to “flesh out” their background characters. – Michael Sep 10 at 11:59
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    @Michael Why don't you make it a question on this SE? – Galastel Sep 10 at 12:03
5

The key is to write a person, not a pet dog in the form of a female companion / love interest.

A person is a complex, with aspirations, motivations, interests, and a personality. And now you have this complex character, should she still be with the hero? As a writer, you need to write that.

And writing a love interest is not easy, not even for good writers, male or female.

JK Rowling, wrote a rather generic destiny hero (Harry Potter), and his love interests were even flatter than him! Cho Chang was only memorable for being Asian (not given much to do). Ronald Weasley's sister, whatever her name was, had 0 personality (and had nothing to do).

Hermione and Ron were two major characters that ultimately fell in love, in a relationship that pretty much made no sense to the readers. Because JKR just forced them together, because that's how she envisioned it. (The problem was she just told it, without showing it). Hermione and Ron could have worked if JKR devoted some pages to making it happen.

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    While I'm no particular JK Rowling fan myself, holding her up as an example of an approach that won't sell doesn't quite work. – user16226 Sep 9 at 17:01
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    @Mark Baker: Nothing against JKR. I rather enjoy her lively writing. I only picked her as an example because her work is well known. Love interest in is hard to write. Bourne Identity's marie is a good example of a decent love interest in an action movie (even though she doesn't have a lot of back story, she is a 3 dimensional character). You can see why Jason Bourne liked/loved her. 1. he started out needing her.. and he grew to love her as she was resourceful, brave and compassionate. And as she discovered that Jason was a good person abused by evil men she grew to like him too. – dolphin_of_france Sep 9 at 17:20
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    @MarkBaker You're not buying those books for the Romance though. You're buying them for the story of a Misfit, who - even when he finds where he 'belongs' - finds himself on the outside for reasons beyond his control. The dichotomy between his outward desire to be "normal", and his instinctive need to help those in distress. The innocent child, slowly discovering the corruption in society, and struggling to remain untainted by it. The "love stories" are crudely tacked on, and don't really fit with the rest of it. – Chronocidal Sep 10 at 10:00
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    Re Hermione and Ron, one of the features of the Harry Potter series is that it's 100% told through Harry's eyes. If Harry doesn't see it, we don't see it. And as you say, Harry Potter and the Raging Hormones doesn't form part of JKR's repertoire. She was consciously writing from the tradition of the English boarding school novel, which of course also didn't feature sex in a single-gender school; the trouble is in transplanting that to a mixed-gender 21st-century setting, where it rings very hollow. – Graham Sep 10 at 16:10
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    @dolphin_of_france FWIW, incidentally, I liked that Hermione didn't end up as Harry's love interest, and that their friendship was based on mutual respect. As a model for kids, it's a good one. There's the scene in Goblet of Fire where Hermione dresses herself up and Harry first realises she's turning into an attractive young woman, but he doesn't immediately go and try to shag her! The shame is that Ron and Hermione ended up shotgun-marriaged together, when it would have been so much more interesting for them to grow together without that between them. – Graham Sep 11 at 11:05
3

As it stands now, your question seems to boil down to: how can I write a story that no one will criticize? The answer to that is, don't publish it. If you publish it, with any degree of success, someone will criticize it. The more successful you are, the more people will criticize it and the more vicious their criticism will be.

It is unfortunately true today that we are in one of those recurrent periods of history where all works of art are subject to ideological purity tests.

All ideologies are lies. They warp the truth to advantage one party or another. This is why the proponents of ideologies prefer to engage in vicious personal attacks rather than reasoned argument. If they had an argument they would make it. Because they don't have an argument they can only attack. If you write a book that attempts to be truthful, you will offend, and be attacked by, the partisans of one ideology or another. That's the gig.

Of course, ideology is not the only source of lies. Fantasies are lies as well. Pornography is a lie. Romance novels are lies. The hard man soldier stories are lies. They are stories of how we would prefer to be, not how we are. They are stories of how we would prefer others to be, not how they are.

When fantasy meets idology, things can get particularly ugly. The ideologues smell blood in the water because they know they are attacking a lie, and the lie has a harder time defending itself.

There is a certain degree of protection to be found in disappearing into a particular ideological camp or a particular fantasy community and never sticking your literary head out where the other ideologues can see you.

Or you can attempt to tell the truth and be attacked from all sides. Like I said, that's the gig.

EDIT: On this subject from today's LitHub: https://lithub.com/the-communist-plot-to-assassinate-george-orwell/

  • This is a sad place to be. A writer wants to convey a story of heroic adventure. As stated, the motivation doesn't matter, the story is in the how. BUT now the writer has to be careful of the inconsequential subject matter just to escape a flood of criticism. We can no longer lean on any well established motivation in order to move on to the actual story. Arbitrarily we must avoid certain ideological landmines. Sad. – Jammin4CO Sep 10 at 18:39
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    @Jammin4CO Sad perhaps, but this is the history of art. It is certainly not unique today. Every age has its puritan, its censors, its demagogues, and it Bowdlerizers. – user16226 Sep 10 at 19:12
1

In addition to the excellent answers here already, this might be an opportunity for you to do some further reading, to examine in detail how some of the most popular high-quality novels pursue a strong romance arc.

You can start with an internet search for "romance in [genre]", using your own favourite genre. I tried this for "romance in science fiction" and immediately found the following page which offers a great start: 12 Sci-Fi Romance Books That Will Make You Swoon. Or try "crime", "adventure novels", "vampire novels", etc.

There's also a bit of snobbery in literature about "romance" novels. Sure there's a lot of pulp romance, but that's true in the other genres as well. Don't be put off by the "romance" tag! The reality is that

(a) some of the greatest works in literature are romances. To name just a few: Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, the Pulitzer-winning Gone with the Wind, Forster's A Room With A View, Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, arguably even Joyce's Ulysses. And more recent favourites: Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

(b) most major publishing houses would go out of business if it wasn't for their romance book sales, and most romance writers make far more money than writers of "literary fiction". Why? Because romances are popular, and good romance novels sell.

1

Some people are afraid of having the hero or protagonist rescue their love interest because it reinforces the old stereotype of a woman needed to be rescued by a man.

I may point out that there is a lot of truth in the old stereotype of a woman needing to be rescued by a man. Countless millions of men, women, and children have been in danger in history and each of those countless millions of endangered persons needed to be rescued by one or more men, women, children, or animals. Certainly many millions more people needed to be rescued than actually were rescued, so if someone is rescued there seems to me no reason to quibble about who rescues them.

And there is no shame in a man, woman, or child in a dangerous situation needing to be rescued by someone bigger and stronger than them, or even needing to be rescued by someone smaller and weaker than them.

For example, in 272 BC, in street fighting in Argos, an Argive warrior was losing to King Pyrrhus of Epirus when the warrior's old mother on a rooftop grabbed a heavy roof tile and flung it down on Pyrrhus's head. Pyrrhus fell down, living or dead, and another Argive warrior beheaded him.

At the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, a officer of Battery B, 4th US Artillery was wounded and the much smaller 15-year-old Bugler John Cook helped helped him to the rear. When Cook returned to the battery he found an abandoned cannon and loaded and fired it by himself.

At the Battle of the Rosebud, June 17, 1876, Sergeant John Van Moll of Company A, Third US Cavalry, "a brave and gigantic soldier", was so eager to fight that he accompanied a mounted charge by the Crow and Shoshone allies against the Sioux and Cheyenne while he was on foot. After fighting for a while, the mounted warriors withdrew, as was their custom, and Sergeant Van Moll was left alone and on foot and easy pickings for the Sioux and Cheyenne.

Major Randall and Lieutenant Bourke, who had probably not noticed him in the general melee, but who, in the crisis, recognized his stature and his danger, turned their horses to rush to his rescue. They called on the Indians to follow them. One small, misshapen Crow warrior, mounted on a fleet pony, outstripped all others. He dashed boldly in among the Sioux, against whom Van Moll was dauntlessly defending himself, seized the big sergeant by the shoulder and motioned him to jump up behind. The Sioux were too astonished to realize what had been done until they saw the long-legged sergeant, mounted behind the little Crow, known as Humpy, dash toward our lines like the wind. Then they opened fire, but we opened also, and compelled them to seek higher ground. The whole line of our battalion cheered Humpy and Van Moll as they passed us on the home-stretch. There were no insects on them, either.

https://www.astonisher.com/archives/museum/rosebud/john_finerty_rosebud.html1

Also at the Battle of the Rosebud June 17, 1876, a Cheyenne warrior named Chief Comes in Sight was wounded and was left behind by retreating warriors. His sister, Buffalo Calf Road Woman (c. 1844-1879) rode out to him, picked him up on her horse and rode away with him to safety.

Those few examples I could think of at the moment show that chance events can put even a brave and competent warrior in a situation where he needs to be rescued by someone, and sometimes that someone might even be smaller and weaker than them.

(added 09-12-19. There actually have been all female military combat units, including the dreaded Dahomey "Amazons" who fought with spears and swords as well as with rifles, Paraguayan female units in the War of the Triple Alliance, and Russian female units in World War II. So historically there have been military situations with rather increased probability of females rescuing males who were on their side.)

I can also point out that the original question supposes that the protagonist and/or hero of the story will be male and the love interest who the protagonist and/or hero might need to save during the story would be female.

But it is perfectly possible to write a story with a female protagonist, and even a story where a female protagonist rescues her boy friend or husband from danger. J.R.R. Tolkien's Beren and Luthien (2017) contains various versions of the story of Beren and Luthien written over several decades starting about 1920, and in them Luthien sometimes rescues her lover Beren from various dangers.

So a story where a women rescues a man from danger would not exactly be a brand new idea in 2019.

Furthermore, it is perfectly possible for a real person or a fictional character to fall in love with a person of the same gender as themselves, and thus possibly rescue their lover of the same gender.

For example, in the 4th century BC the elite military unit of the Greek city state of Thebes was the Sacred Band, composed of 150 pairs of male lovers. It fought at the Battle of Tegyra in 375 BC, where they defeated a Spartan force, the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, which was a historic defeat for the Spartans, and were wiped out at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. I imagine that some members of the Sacred Band saved their lovers in battle.

Furthermore, while the vast majority of humans are either male or female, a small proportion of humans are not. I know of at least one military unit composed of members of a "third gender", the eunuch bodyguards of the eastern Roman or "Byzantine" Emperor in the 6th century.

And in fantasy and science fiction stories it is possible to have nonhuman alien protagonists who might not be either male or female. And in science fiction stories there can be intelligent robot and computer protagonists who may be gender less.

  • 2
    Minor niggle - eunuchs are castrated men, often castrated involuntarily. It doesn't change their gender presentation. Castrato singers were famously in demand with women, because affairs with a castrato could not result in accidental pregnancy. :) A "third gender" refers to trans people, which really isn't the same thing. Regardless of that though, you're right and in fact that point should perhaps even be more prominent. Cisgendered heterosexual relationships may constitute the majority, but with 7 billion people on Earth you're always going to have large numbers of any minority. – Graham Sep 11 at 11:46
  • In the "Byzantine" court eunuchs were classified as a sort of third gender. There were different hierachies for civilian, military, and church positions, and different hierarchies for men, women, and eunuchs. – M. A. Golding Sep 11 at 15:58
  • @MAGolding They got a different hierarchy because they inherently weren't trying to build up their family prospects. Actually crossing gender lines like Indian hijrah for example is a bit of a different kettle of fish. – Graham Sep 11 at 19:23

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